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How to keep your "A" players

Star employees lead to a well-run operation. Take steps to avoid losing your best workers.

It’s a nightmare scenario for any business: A star employee suddenly decides to jump ship. Out the door goes years of experience and in-depth knowledge of the operation and how things get done. 

What’s more, the ghosting of a top performing employee obviates any plans for grooming that person for a management role. “When you lose your best employees, you lose not only their skills but also their leadership potential,” says David Dye, president of Let’s Grow Leaders, a management consulting firm in Washington D.C. In rural areas especially, where employers reside far from large cities with concentrated pools of talent, quality employees come at a premium.

Spot the stars

How about your own business? Do you think your top performers will hesitate to leave?

Maybe so, but the fact remains that people who perform the best tend to suffer the most from wandering eyes. A survey by SAP and Oxford Economics, published in The Harvard Business Review, found less than half of high performers were satisfied with their current duties. One in five were likely to seek a greener pasture in the next six months.

“Top performers are often less than content with their jobs,” says Richard Avdoian, an employee development consultant in St. Louis. “Many want to further their careers by moving on to more promising positions.”

You can take steps to keep your own best people from jumping ship. Begin by making sure you focus on the brightest stars. Avdoian suggests looking at your employment pool as a complex of three classes of workers on an escalating scale of value: slackers, foundationals, and high achievers.

Slackers are easy to spot: They do the bare minimum to collect their paychecks. Foundational employees, in contrast, perform their duties in a conscientious and dependable manner, serving as reliable anchors to your business.

The final category consists of people who outperform the norm. “High achievers are driven go getters,” says Avdoian. “They are your most productive employees.” These individuals can deliver up to 400% more productivity to a workplace than other employees, according to the HBR report.

With this short list in hand, make sure you give your best people the specific things they need to keep them on board. And just what do they want more than anything else?

The answer is probably not surprising: The HBR report found that top performers care significantly more than average or low-performing ones about competitive compensation. You must offer them a salary commensurate with their skills and at least equal to what other employers in your region provide.

Pay for performance

High performers also care more than their slacker or foundational coworkers about the ability to earn bonus pay based on performance. “The opportunity to make more money through their achievements is an incentive for your top performers to stick around,” says Donna Cutting, CEO of Red Carpet Learning Systems, Asheville, N.C. (redcarpetlearning.com).

The goal is to create a win-win situation for employer and worker: Fixed compensation costs remain low while employees have the chance to earn more when they excel.

A pay for performance system is a far cry from old familiar reward relics of the past, such as the annual seniority-based salary hike and the automatic year-end bonus. The problem was that the conventional system wasn’t getting the job done, basically because it did not incentivize better performance.

Moreover, high performers resented the fact they were not rewarded for their superior productivity at a rate any higher than others. Meanwhile, ongoing salary increases bloated payrolls until the business risked becoming uncompetitive.

Besides its direct financial component, such pay serves to highlight the connection between employee actions and organizational success. “It’s important that people understand their overall part in the success of a business,” says Cutting. “Performance-based pay does that.”

Valuable as it is as a retention tool, performance-based pay carries the hazard of unwittingly rewarding the wrong behavior. “You need to be careful that the performance objectives you set are in alignment with your business values,” warns Cutting.

On the other side of that coin, performance-based pay won’t work if employees are unclear about how their actions directly contribute to the organization’s bottom line, or lack sufficient know-how to perform to their maximum potential. “You need to make sure employees have a sufficient measure of control over meeting the described objectives,” says Cutting. “And they must be given the proper tools to do so.”

Include everyone

One more hazard for performance-based pay: Employees left out of the program may resent their inability to earn bonus compensation. That’s why it’s important to include everyone, even those for whom it’s difficult to measure quantifiable workplace results.

Designing an effective program is more difficult for some members of the support staff who do not perform in quantifiable ways. However, it is not impossible. “You can make pay for performance work for receptionists or any kind of support staff, as long as they are given the necessary tools by management,” says Cutting.

The biggest challenge is finding a way to measure support staff performance that is fair and reasonable. One approach is to ask, “What is this person’s job and how well are they doing it?” If you ask employees how they measure their own performance, you may hear good ideas that can be translated into a quantifiable system.

Assure success by continually expanding your plan’s scope. Include more people and develop more refined performance assessment parameters while soliciting feedback from participants.

Watch for Part 2 on employee retainment next week.

Perry is a freelance business writer based in Washington, D.C.

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